If Beltran returns, will Mets get better?

The question that is coming to a talk radio show near you is this: Are the Mets better off without Carlos Beltran?

While the Mets are hunting down first place in the NL East, the 33-year-old Beltran is quietly working in Port St. Lucie, Fla. There are reports that his bum knee still causes him to limp, which makes you wonder if the Mets are getting the 2008 Beltran or a $19 million-per-year player who is worth pennies on the dollar.

If he is the great Beltran -- the 27-homer, 112-RBI, nearly .900 OPS guy of 2008 -- then the argument is over. Angel Pagan, you have played very nicely, but you can now share time on the corners.

But there is no evidence that Beltran will be that 2008 Beltran. He has played in simulated games only so far and hasn't been able to play extended time in the outfield, leaving the Mets to say he is inching closer, whatever that means.

Pagan has been very good. He has added to a suddenly good vibe from an organization that has spent most of the last year finding slapstick-style banana peels to slip on and hurt themselves in embarrassing ways.

Beltran, fairly or unfairly, has been in the middle of some of it with the infighting Mets' chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon sparked with Beltran's agent, Scott Boras. (By the way, after all that Boras and Wilpon have been through with Beltran and Oliver Perez, the Mets may want to have open negotiations at Citi Field and sell tickets to watch Boras go at it with Wilpon over the Mets' first round pick, pitcher Matt Harvey.)

Pagan has played a solid center field, hit in the clutch and been a positive force in the lineup. His numbers projected over a full season would be .296 with 10 homers and 74 RBIs. They are not 2008 Beltran, but they are in the ballpark with 2009 Beltran. Beltran -- who came back in September last year, which seemed odd at the time and odder now -- played in 81 games last season. If you doubled his statistics, he would have finished with a .325 average, 20 homers and 96 RBIs. Better than Pagan, but not that much better.

"The whole thing with Pagan in his career has been health," an MLB scout said. "When he is healthy, he is pretty good."

Pagan has the ability to play right and left. Beltran has not done that and may not want to; he has been a Gold Glove center fielder and like most Gold Glove center fielders -- even ones with a bum knee -- he probably is not that keen on moving to one of the corners.

"If his knee is not too good, they may have to put him in right," the scout said.

This is where it could get ugly. After the "he said, he said" over the timing and authorization of Beltran's offseason knee surgery, the Mets started writing letters to Boras, apparently trying to start a case if Beltran is never right again.

This is a $30 million cloud hanging over the converging storm. The $30 million is the amount Beltran is owed for the next season-and-a-half, while Pagan is making a measly $1.45 million with no guarantees for next season.

If Beltran is somehow Beltran, there is no issue. He returns to center field and Pagan takes time away from Jeff Francoeur and maybe even gets a start in left field here and there for Jason Bay.

But, when Beltran finally returns, what are the chances that he is the old Beltran? That is why the whole situation is so intriguing.

Andrew Marchand covers baseball for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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